Feds cite safety for Quitobaquito closing; critics see other motives

The National Park Service has prohibited access to Quitobaquito Springs near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, considered sacred by Tohono O’odham tribe. Federal officials say it was to protect people from hazards of border wall construction in the area. (File photo by Annabella Piunti/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The National Park Service cited public safety concerns for its decision this week to prohibit access to a sacred Tohono O’odham site, a move that comes amid rising tensions between border wall protestors and federal agents.

Park service officials said the decision to shut down roads to the Quitobaquito Springs, posted Monday on a website for nearby Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, was made at the request of Customs and Border Protection, and referred questions to the border agency.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, CBP said it is working closely with the Interior Department’s land management agencies to “mitigate recent risks to public safety concerns associated with ongoing border wall construction.”

It also said it is working with “stakeholders to designate specific areas for the public to exercise First Amendment rights without compromising public safety.”

That is an apparent reference to charges by border wall opponents that access was cut off in retaliation for recent protests. Laiken Jordahl, of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the CBP’s justifications “a baldfaced lie.”

“There has been construction activity, heavy construction traffic, even dynamiting and blasting of a sacred mountain, and that hasn’t led them to close this road,” Jordahl said Monday.

“This closure is meant to stop the public from protesting this travesty, and this closure is also going to stop the tribal members from holding ceremonies at Quitobaquito, which is something they’ve done for millennia,” he said.

The order comes a week after protestors and federal agents clashed during a demonstration at the site of border wall construction through Organ Pipe. News reports said armed agents tried to relocate protestors after repeatedly telling them it was not safe and they had to leave the site. Earlier this month, two Indigenous women were arrested for attempting to block construction.

At the request of CBP, the park service said it expanded temporary closures that were already in effect at Organ Pipe, near border wall construction. Jordahl said that the closure came almost a day after local tribes convened at the spring for a ceremony.

Kevin Dahl, the Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he understands the safety concerns, but believes that the order is “an example of the destruction that this wall is causing.”

Dahl, who describes Quitobaquito spring as “a wonderful, magical desert oasis,” called it a “horrible shame that the park services feels, and has to, take this step to protect the safety of visitors.”

“The fact that it’s being closed to make it easier for the federal government to build this unneeded, super-expensive, and ineffective wall that is just a symbol, rather than something that is actually needed, is just disgusting,” Dahl said.

Jordahl said protesters at the site are merely doing what the park service should be doing, which is to “speak out to stop the destruction of Quitobaquito Springs.”

Tim Whitehouse, the executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he sees the site restrictions as “a shocking example of unlawful, unethical, and ecologically destructive behavior by the U.S. government and its contractors.”

“I don’t see any good coming out of this,” Whitehouse said, “it’s just been a completely inappropriate use of funds, completely heavy-handed tactics that are being used and it’s not even clear that the construction of the wall will deter any illegal migration.”

Calls seeking comment from Tohono O’odham officials were not immediately returned.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Claire Chandler is an Arizona resident who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication with a minor in digital audiences. Chandler is working at Cronkite News in Washington, D.C.